How Can We Best Teach Reading to Students with Autism?

Teaching Reading and Autism from Autism Classroom Resources

I was reading a discussion in a forum online recently in which a parent or teacher (I don’t remember which) asked for advice about teaching reading to her child or student with autism. The forum was primarily made up of educators. I am always interested in ideas to teach our students how to read, so I was interested to see what was being said. It actually brought some things to light about people’s preconceptions and myths about teaching reading to students on the spectrum.

Teaching Reading and Autism from Autism Classroom ResourcesNow let me preface by saying that am definitely NOT a reading expert. I wish I was but it just never happened. However there are a lot of things I have learned about reading instruction and students on the spectrum that contradicted many of the things that were being mentioned. 

If you have some knowledge to share on the subject PLEASE DO!!  I would love for folks to share what they know and resources they use in their own classrooms that are scientifically based.  In the meantime, I wanted to share some ideas to think about in making decisions about reading instruction for students on the spectrum.

First myth:  All students with autism should have primarily a sight word curriculum. 

Now the first clear problem is that all or never trap. Nothing in autism is always or never, or all or none. Yes many students do respond well to learning sight words. However that does not and SHOULD NOT keep us from introducing phonics to them. Phonics is a door opener for all children. Failing to do everything in our power to teach this approach will significantly impact the child’s progress in school.  This doesn’t mean that some students will be more successful with sight words, it just means we shouldn’t assume that’s the case if they don’t make progress on the classroom curriculum.

Second myth: Students with autism can’t learn with conventional curricula for reading so we have to “make our own.”  

Please understand that I have a great appreciation for how hard teachers work to create materials for their students, to individualize curricula for the students and to adapt materials. However that is not creating a curriculum. A curriculum is a scope and sequence. It tells you what to teach and in what order. You can read more about it in this post.  Sometimes it gives you the materials to teach it, like PCI, but many times it doesn’t. Creating materials to teach reading, unless you are developing a true scope and sequence and testing it out in real research, is not creating what we are required to use to teach all students how to read: a scientifically based reading curriculum.

However, teacher-made and supplemental materials are useful and often critical for giving the students additional practice, but they aren’t the curriculum themselves.  For instance, I love using the Edmark Functional Word Series for older students (by itself or with other approaches dependent upon the student).  Students need more practice on these words, though, in a variety of situations to be able to use them functionally in their environment.  So, I make task cards and file folders for them to practice the words.  

Also, I have to do a minor correction.  I noted in a previous post on curriculum that Unique is not a reading curriculum.  Apparently that same day they announced that they were launching, you guessed it, a reading curriculum.  I have not had time to play with it yet but hope to in the next few weeks and then will be back with an update on many of the changes they have put in place to the program.

Third myth: There is no scientifically based curriculum for students with autism.

Curricula aren’t determined, in most instances, to be scientifically based for a diagnosis that is not specific to the reading problems that a student demonstrates.  They are evaluated for how they fit the characteristics of the individual reader.  Even though students have an autism diagnosis, that does not mean they all have the same difficulties with reading.  

I have graduate students I teach tell me that they don’t have specialized curricula for their students so they use website-based “curricula.”  That is ok if you have vetted the online curriculum to see if it is scientifically based. Some, like Headsprout from Learning A-Z has a ton of research to support it. But much of what you find out on the Internet is an attempt to make money but not necessarily an evidence-based practice. It’s not that internet-based or teacher-made tools aren’t useful—they are vital.  But you have to check to see how they fit with the scope and sequence of what you need to teach.

So how do we teach reading to students with autism?

Start with general education curricula.

Obviously you start with the district’s adopted curriculum before you make changes. You look at whether accommodations will help. And you monitor very often and early. Then if If the student is not making progress you move to alternative curriculum. And for each of them you assess early and often to see if it is working. 

Use Direct Instruction

There is some early evidence that using direct instruction curricula, such as Reading Mastery, can be effective for students with autism to learn phonics-based reading.  The students respond to the high level of structure and repetition that DI uses and many are able to make progress using it 1-1 if not in a group setting.  [By the way, did you know there are DI materials for teaching math? Many of our kids do well with them too.]

Teach phonics and sight words together

It’s so easy to get caught up in an all-or-nothing approach, we have to careful to remember that we can teach sight words AND phonics-based approaches simultaneously.  One of the things I like about the PCI Reading Curriculum is that it transitions from early teaching in sight words into teaching phonics.  I have worked with many students who are working on Edmark and Reading Mastery at the same time so we are sure we are covering our bases.  We also are taking data to see which one is working most functionally for the student.

Ask Your Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP)

Because students with autism struggle with reading because, in part, of their difficulty with language, SLPs are natural resources for helping address the reading problems.  Some SLPs have more experience than others in teaching reading, but many can be an amazing resource to help to build reading skills and structure language instruction to support them.

Make it functional and focus on comprehension.

After all that, remember that reading is only useful if it can be used and if there is comprehension.  Many of our students learn to “word call” where they can read and say all the words, but they don’t know what they mean.  Again, the SLP can help with this. Many students will need additional practice on comprehension and there are many teacher-made tools out there that can be used to practice the skill.  If you are looking for materials to support reading curriculum, drop me a comment or an email and I’ll send you some resources.

And finally, always make sure to be focusing on the bigger issue of literacy not just reading. 

Reading is important.  Clearly it’s a gateway skill that leads to more efficient learning of all skills across the board. However, literacy and the ability to use print in a variety of different ways from reading and writing in books, through environmental print, and understanding how to access reading material is a critical skill that even our students with the most complex needs can be working on.

First, you might want to hop over to Superteach’s Special Ed Spot today to check out her post on PCI and Edmark.  She is highlighting some similarities and differences between the two.

But before you go, what are your thoughts about teaching reading to students with autism?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Until next time,

Autism Classroom Resources

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